I’ve penned well over 100 feature articles in my career, and this is easily the most complete, refined, and otherwise badass VIP ride I’ve ever come across, let alone had the privilege of introducing to all of you. And from what Houston-area photographer Chris Reno told us about the day he met up with the creators of this beast, their “Refined Elegance” crew is pretty much chock-full of luxo rides built to a similar caliber. But this one stands out—for more reasons than any one car should.
We’re sure that by now you’re all aware of the VIP backstory, and how the Japanese Yakuza initiated the trend (also called Bippu) by modifying expensive, RWD, large-body Japanese sedans to offer all the luxuries demanded by their most very important persons, while maintaining the ability to blend in with thousands of customized Japanese limousines on the country’s roadways. It was a trick that helped them avoid the eyes of zealous cops, and provide the intimidated ones with a degree of deniability in looking the other way. By the book, sports cars like the Nissan Silvia, Mazda RX-7, or anything by Honda, for example, could never be considered proper VIP, no matter how much in the tradition we see some modified today. Put literally, VIP is and always was a game for the big boys.
Enter the Lexus LS, or Toyota Celsior, as it’s known in Japan. When it launched in the late ’80s, its aim was to “surpass rival American and European flagship sedans in specific target areas, including aerodynamics, cabin quietness, overall top speed, and fuel efficiency,” (from Chester Dawson’s Lexus: The Relentless Pursuit, 2004). V-8 power should also be added to that list. Needless to say, the world’s elite ate it up, and LSs driven on behalf of Japan’s most successful illicit businessmen were immediately made lower, darker, more plush inside, and more aggressive outside.
Popping the hood of this ’01 LS430, you’ll notice something peculiar for a VIP ride: performance mods. The aforementioned Japanese elite may not have been the type to run from their associates, but Stateside enthusiasts like those of Refined Elegance are exactly the type to give the occasional modified sports car a run for its money on Texas’ sprawling freeways. This Lex flexes over 400 horses at a conservative 10 psi of boost from its custom Garrett GT40/T4 turbocharger, part of a complete system built and tuned by Houston-area induction/fabrication specialists Secret Services Auto (SSA). And yes, it’s all centered around the original 3UZ-FE V-8 engine of the Lexus LS—not the increasingly popular GM replacement. But it’s the presentation that’s sure to get a nod of approval from any high roller. Chrome City, in nearby Humble, takes the chrome/copper-plated cake (as seen by their work on the turbo and HKS 100mm velocity stack), and Dip Tech’s treatment of the stock engine plastics—hydrographically covering them in carbon-fiber transfer—is too cool for words. YouTube that big one if you’re unfamiliar with it.
If ultra-rarities are what grab your attention, this LS is captivating. See that exhaust poking out beneath the rear portion of that full Admiration kit? It’s an authentic Seiryusho cat-back, one of only six ever made. And those Weds Kranze wheels filling the custom-radius sheetmetal fenders are nearly as rare; they’re called “Elaborar”, and as of press time are the only set known to have made it to the U.S.—these having been infused with custom Swarovski Topaz Crystal rivets and valve stem caps. Houston’s JC Auto Body Repair not only fabricated those fenders in the JDM VIP tradition, but applied the full kit, shaved the emblems and washer nozzles, installed all the exterior goodies in the spec box, tubbed the wheelwells in preparation for the hybrid airover suspension, and coated everything in a custom variation of Lexus’ Premium Brown Effect paint.
What is an airover suspension? It’s a term I just made up, but I hope it catches on. Taking a good look at the footworks OG Garage installed on this LS—a Universal Air suspension over BC Racing adjustable coilover bodies—you can see how fitting both the term and the approach are. Here, the dampers’ valves have been matched to 18kg/mm front and 16kg/mm rear springs, but with bags in place of where those springs would otherwise reside and the adjustable collars retained. This means ride height adjustability, dampers better matched to the increased weight of the car and wheels, and the ability to fine-tune it all.
Then, there’s the interior: the most important part of any very important, er...ride (VIR?). This LS’s doesn’t disappoint. Dip Tech’s expertise can again be seen in all faux woodgrain panels, but for a real treat, look up. That fiber-optic “galaxy” headliner treatment, inspired by the Rolls-Royce Phantom, is just one of the many pleasantries cooked up by the Houston-area upholstery gurus at Stitches; others include all the custom Alcantara coverings, red diamond stitching, and most of the rarities scattered throughout, including all that ICE—since no proper VIP ride is so without it.
Khanh Nguyen is the proud Refined Elegance team member who gets to call this, the sickest VIP ride that’s ever crossed our path, his own. Though it was built mostly by its previous owner: the team’s president. And Khanh is OK with that. As you read this, he’s got it torn into a million pieces, awaiting a complete changeover, the results of which will most likely be documented on our pages: a new kit, new color, more power, and—we’re sure—a lot more low/dark/plush/aggressive surprises. We’re betting even some that would intimidate even the most zealous Stateside cops into looking the other way.
Behind the Build
Cars, gaming, Internet
2001 Lexus LS430
Output: 422 whp | 408 lb-ft of torque
Engine Secret Services Auto (SSA) custom intake manifold, turbo manifold, downpipe, oil pan, tuning; Walbro fuel pump; Aeromotive fuel pressure regulator; RC Engineering 550cc/min injectors; Seiryusho cat-back exhaust; Optima Yellow Top batteries (x2); Garrett GT40/T4 turbocharger; Lextreme oil supply kit; HKS SSQV blow-off valve, 100mm velocity stack; Tial 44mm wastegate; Mishimoto radiator; TRD thermostat; custom carbon-fiber hydrographically covered plastics by Dip-tech.net; custom chrome/copper dipping by Chrome City; AEM FIC-8 engine management; Greddy Profec B boost controller, A’pexi turbo timer
Drivetrain Mishimoto transmission cooler
Suspension BC Racing coilovers (18kg/mm front springs, 16kg/mm rear springs); Universal Air suspension, AutoPilot digital air management; ViAir Compressors (x2); YouZealand Super Stroker front and rear lower control arms; Nagisa Auto front upper adjustable arms
Wheels/tires Weds Kranze Elaborar wheels (20x10, -5mm offset front; 20x11, -10mm offset rear); Hankook Ventus V12 Evo tires (245/30-20 front, 255/30-20 rear); Swarovski Crystal lug nuts
Brakes Futura Design eight-piston front calipers, six-piston rear calipers, 320mm front two-piece rotors, 280mm rear two-piece rotors; JBT stainless steel lines
Exterior Admiration body kit (front bumper, rear bumper, side skirts); custom-radius fenders; Varnes grille; chrome grille surround; Garson Swarovski door bling, license plate bling, bonnet mascot; Insurance roof spoiler; Fabulous rear trunk spoiler; custom LED puddle lights, glitter bulbs; Boyz chrome door handles; ’04 LS LED taillights, ’05 trunk; custom shaved emblems, windshield squirters, tubbed wheelwells, carbon-fiber B-pillars, three-stage brown paint, applied by JC Autobody
Interior Garson Swarovski shift knob, Super rearview mirror, chrome point emblems, velvet VIP curtains, crystals, jewel air vents; K-Break neck pads, tissue box; Junction Produce Fusa, red leather pillows, bear; Lexus Trance illuminated step plates, LS 600h floor mats; limo tint; Dip-tech.net custom wood center console; custom Dynamat, Alcantara panels, pillars, red diamond stitching, 400-star fiber-optic “galaxy” headliner, applied by Stitches
Electronics Alpine W505 7-inch head unit, 7-inch headrest monitors (x2), Blackbird B200 docking unit; Rainbow Vanadium Cross Kicks three-way front speakers (x2), two-way rear speakers (x2), 10-inch subwoofers (x2), iPaul amplifiers (x3), tweeters (x2); Defi 60mm gauges (exhaust temperature, oil pressure, boost, water temperature), Link Control; custom iPod/iPhone/USB armrest dock, fiberglass enclosures throughout
Gratitude Secret Services Auto; JC Autobody; Stitches; OG Garage; Refined Elegance family; my girlfriend for understanding; Mike at OG Garage